SAN DIEGO—The day when police zap suspects from the sky with drones carrying stun guns may be nearing.
Taser International Inc., known for its stun guns and body cameras, is exploring the concept of a drone armed with a stun gun for use by police. This week, the company held discussions with police officials about such a device during a law-enforcement conference here.
Taser spokesman Steve Tuttle said the company’s advanced research team met with law enforcement customers “to discuss various future concepts” to get feedback.
“Following recent events, including the use of a robot to deploy lethal force in Dallas to eliminate a highly dangerous threat, we’ve received questions about whether it would be feasible to similarly deploy a TASER from an autonomous vehicle,” said Mr. Tuttle, referring to the Dallas police department’s use of a bomb-disposal robot armed with C-4 explosive to take out a gunman who had targeted and killed five officers in July.
“One can certainly imagine high-risk scenarios such as terrorist barricades where such a capability could allow public safety officers to more rapidly incapacitate a threat and save many lives,” Mr. Tuttle said, adding these “remain conceptual discussions” at this time.
“We’re also considering the potential misuses of such a technology in our discussions and before we would make any decisions,” he said.
In a conference room away from the busy San Diego Convention Center floor where law-enforcement officials from around the world perused the latest police technology, a Taser employee showed some police leaders a drone, and discussed how different things could be attached to it, including a camera, a light and a stun gun—a less-lethal weapon that discharges an electric shock.
Mr. Tuttle said the drone was an off-the-shelf model, and not a prototype worked on by Taser.
But the very concept represents a leap in thinking about how technology can be deployed in law enforcement and comes as police seek safeguards after officer deaths. And, it is likely to generate backlash from those opposed to the militarization of police as tensions are already high among authorities and minority communities over police killings of black men.
“The public is going to initially be alarmed by this,” Jim Bueermann, president of the Police Foundation, a research group, who viewed the drone at the conference and talked with a Taser employee about it.
But Mr. Bueermann, a retired police chief from Redlands, Calif., said he sees benefit in such technology for preventing deadly encounters where an armed suspect might otherwise be shot by police or harm others.
Mr. Bueermann said he could imagine a scenario where police approach an armed suspect in an armored vehicle, stun the suspect with the drone, and then hop out and make the arrest.
He said that with policies to limit its use to very specific situations, it could be a useful tool for police, adding that they should be very cautious about adopting such technology.
“From a strictly tactical perspective I see the potential value of this but I also understand how apprehensive people are going to be,” said Mr. Bueermann. “Many people are going to be concerned that if you can put a Taser on one, what’s going to prevent you from putting a firearm on.”
The emergence of the Taser drone concept comes as police in the U.S. have just started to turn to robots in dealing with armed suspects, as they did in Dallas.
North Dakota passed a law last year allowing police drones to be equipped with stun guns.
These developments have increased worries about the blurring of lines between police and the military, said Ryan Calo, an assistant professor at the University of Washington School of Law who studies robots and the law.
“There is a longstanding belief in this country that the domestic police should not overlap with the military,” said Mr. Calo.
Pete Simpson, a spokesman for the Portland police department, said that it would likely not be adopted anytime soon because of public concern—but that it could be useful.
“The idea for a community to accept an unmanned vehicle that’s got some sort of weapon on it might be a hurdle to overcome,” said Mr. Simpson. But, he said, “we need the creative business folks to be thinking about how to resolve these things that everyone survives: How can we use technology to improve officer safety, community safety and suspect safety?”
Mark Lomax, executive director of the National Tactical Officers Association, a group for members of SWAT and similar teams, said he could see police eventually adopting such technology—but not soon because of the current climate of mistrust with police.
On a practical level, Mr. Lomax said tasing someone with a drone might not be easy.
“With a hand-held Taser it takes a lot of skill to operate it successfully,” Mr. Lomax said. “It’s very hard to envision flying at 50 feet in the air and this thing’s moving and the person’s moving—it could be hard to tase them.”
Like the bomb robot, such a product would raise fundamental questions about police use of force, said Elizabeth Joh, a professor at the University of California, Davis, School of Law.
When police use force, “the premise is there is an imminent danger to the police officer or to the public, but when you create a distance between the officer and the use of force that raises different questions,” said Ms. Joh.
Ms. Joh said that questions about whether a drone with a Taser would increase the use force by officers also need to be addressed. She said that before adopting such technology, policies governing its use must be put in place.
Though some states have taken up the issue, a spokeswoman for the Federal Aviation Administration, which regulates drones, said the agency’s rules “do not specifically prohibit someone from mounting a weapon on an aircraft.”